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A Report From the 12th Century
(Catholic Dossier) May-June 1997

Abbot Sugar

Abbot Suger

The tiresome criticism that it is somehow wrong to honor God with the most valuable things we possess, is effectively quashed in what follows.

The great Basilica of Saint-Denis is built on the site where Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, died, having been beheaded on Montmartre and THEN walked here with his head in his hands. In the twelfth century, Suger became abbot, and the rest is history, a history he himself wrote with great brio. The following excerpt is from his report to posterity on his administration of his charge. Beginning in 1130, he began to renovate the abbey, creating not just a building, but a style. Saint-Denis is regarded as the prototype of the Gothic. The narthex was built during the first decade of Suger's labors. It is impossible to read even a small portion of his account without being struck by the enthusiasm and piety with which he undertook his work. The tiresome criticism that it is somehow wrong to honor God with the most valuable things we possess, is effectively quashed in what follows. But Suger does not linger on such doubts. If purity of heart is to will one thing, Suger had one of the purest hearts of the twelfth century.


In the twenty-third year of our administration, when we sat on a certain day in the general chapter, conferring with our brethren about matters both common and private, these very beloved brethren and sons began strenuously to beseech me in charity that I might not allow the fruits of our so great labors to be passed over in silence; and rather to save for the memory of posteriority, in pen and ink, those increments which the generous munificence of Almighty God had bestowed upon this church, in the time of our prelacy, in the acquisition of new assets as well as in the recovery of lost ones, in the multiplication of improved possessions, in the construction of buildings, and in the accumulation of gold, silver most precious gems and very good textiles. For this one thing they promised us two in return: by such a record we would deserve the continual fervor of all succeeding brethren in their prayers for the salvation of our soul; and we would rouse, through this example, their zealous solicitude for the good care of the church of God. We thus devoutly complied with their devoted and reasonable requests, not with any desire for empty glory nor with any claim to the reward of human praise and transitory compensation; and lest, after our demise, the church be diminished in its revenue by any or anyone's roguery and the ample increments which the generous munificence of God has bestowed in the time of our administration be tacitly lost under bad successors, we have deemed it worthy and useful, just as we thought fitting to begin, in its proper place, our tale about the construction of the buildings and the increase of the treasures with the body of the church of the most blessed Martyrs Denis, Rusticus, and Eleutherius (which [church] has most tenderly fostered us from mother's milk to old age).


Abbey of St. Denis, 1144 We should have insisted with all the devotion of our mind - had we but had the power - that the adorable, life-giving cross, the health?bringing banner of the eternal victory of Our Savior (of which the Apostle says: But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ), should be adorned all the more gloriously as the sign of the Son of Man, which will appear in Heaven at the end of the world, will be glorious not only to men but also to the very angels; and we should have perpetually greeted it with the Apostle Andrew: Hail Cross, which art dedicated in the body of Christ and adorned with His members even as with pearls. But since we could not do as we wished, we wished to do as best we could, and strove to bring it about by the grace of God. Therefore we searched around everywhere by ourselves and by our agents for an abundance of precious pearls and gems, preparing as precious a supply of gold and gems for so important an embellishment as we could find, and convoked the most experienced artists from diverse parts. They would with diligent and patient labor glorify the venerable cross on its reverse side by the admirable beauty of those gems and on its front - that is to say in the sight of the sacrificing priest - they would show the adorable image of our Lord the Savior, suffering, as it were, even now in remembrance of His Passion. In fact the blessed Denis had rested on this very spot for five hundred years or more, that is to say, from the time of Dagobert up to our own day. One merry but notable miracle which the Lord granted us in this connection we do not wish to pass over in silence. For when I was in difficulty for want of gems and could not sufficiently provide myself with more (for their scarcity makes them very expensive): then, lo and behold, [monks] from three abbeys of two Orders - that is, from Citeaux and another abbey of the same Order, and from Fontevrault - entered our little chamber adjacent to the church and offered us for sale an abundance of gems such as we had not hoped to find in ten years, hyacinths, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, topazes. Their owners had obtained them from Count Thibaut for alms; and he in turn had received them, through the hands of his brother Stephen, King of England, from the treasures of his uncle, the late King Henry, who had amassed them throughout his life in wonderful vessels. We, however, freed from the worry, of searching for gems, thanked God and gave four hundred pounds for the lot though they were worth much more.

We applied to the perfection of so sacred an ornament not only these but also a great and expensive supply of other gems and large pearls. We remember, if memory serves, to have put in about eighty marks of refined gold. And barely within two years were we able to have completed, through several goldsmiths from Lorraine - at times five, at other times seven - the pedestal adorned with the Four Evangelists; and the pillar upon which the sacred image stands, enameled with exquisite workmanship, and [on it] the history of the Savior, with the testimonies of the allegories from the Old Testament indicated, and the capital above looking up, with its images, to the Death of the Lord. Hastening to honor and extol even more highly the embellishment of so important and sacred a liturgical object, the mercy of our Savior brought to us our Lord Pope Eugenius for the celebration of holy Easter (as is the custom of Roman Pontiffs, when sojourning in Gaul, in honor Of the sacred apostolate of the blessed Denis, which we have also experienced with his predecessors, Callixtus and Innocent); and he solemnly consecrated the aforesaid crucifix on that day. Out of the title "The True Cross of the Lord Surpassing All and Every Pearl" he assigned to it a portion from his chapel; and publicly, in the presence of all, he anathematized, by the sword of the blessed Peter and by the sword of the Holy Ghost, whosever would steal anything therefrom and whosoever would raise his hand against it in reckless temerity; and we ordered this ban to be inscribed at the foot of the cross.


Abbey of St. Denis 1144 We hastened to adorn the Main Altar of the blessed Denis where there was only one beautiful and precious frontal panel from Charles the Bald, the third Emperor; for at this [altar] we had been offered to the monastic life. We had it all encased, putting up golden panels on either side and adding a fourth, even more precious one; so that the whole altar would appear golden all the way round. On either side, we installed there the two candlesticks of King Louis, son of Philip, of twenty marks of gold, lest they might he stolen on some occasion; we added hyacinths, emeralds, and sundry precious gems; and we gave orders carefully to look out for others to be added further. The verses on these [panels] are these.

On the right side:

Abbot Suger has set up these altar panels in addition to that which King Charles has given before.

Make worthy the unworthy, through thy indulgence, 0 Virgin Mary.

May the fountain of mercy cleanse the sins both of the King, and the Abbot.

On the left side:

If any impious person should despoil this excellent altar

May he perish, deservedly damned, associated with Judas.

But the rear panel, of marvelous workmanship and lavish sumptuousness (for the barbarian artists were even more lavish than ours), we ennobled with chased relief work equally admirable for its form as for its material, so that certain people might be able to say: The workmanship surpassed the material. Much of what had been acquired and more of such ornaments of the church as we were afraid of losing - for instance, a golden chalice that was curtailed of its foot and several other things - we ordered to be fastened there. And because the diversity of the materials [such as] gold, gems and pearls is not easily understood by the mute perception of sight without a description, we have seen to it that this work, which is intelligible only to the literate, which shines with the radiance of delightful allegories, be set down in writing. Also we have affixed verses expounding the matter so that the [allegories] might be more clearly understood:

St. Patrick's Catherdal 1853-1888 Crying out with a loud voice, the mob acclaims Christ:


The true Victim offered at the Lord's Supper has carried all men.

He Who saves all men on the Cross hastens to carry the cross.

The promise which Abraham obtains for his seed is sealed by the flesh of Christ.

Melchizedek offers a libation because Abraham triumphs over the enemy.

They who seek Christ with the Cross bear the cluster of grapes upon a staff.

Often we contemplate, out of sheer affection for the church our mother, these different ornaments both new and old; and when we behold how that wonderful cross of St. Eloy - together with the smaller ones - and that incomparable ornament commonly called "the Crest" are placed upon the golden altar, then I say, sighing deeply in my heart: Every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the jasper, the chrysolite, and the onyx, and the beryl, the sapphire, and the carbuncle, and the emerald. To those who know the properties of precious stones it becomes evident, to their utter astonishment, that none is absent from the number of these (with the only exception of the carbuncle), but that they abound most copiously. Thus, when out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God - the loveliness of the many - colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner. I used to converse with travelers from Jerusalem and, to my great delight, to learn from those to whom the treasures of Constantinople and the ornaments of Hagia Sophia had been accessible, whether the things here could claim some value in comparison with those there. When they acknowledged that these here were the more important ones, it occurred to us that those marvels of which we had heard before might have been put away, as a matter of precaution, for fear of the Franks, lest through the rash rapacity of a stupid few the partisans of the Greeks and Latins, called upon the scene, might suddenly be moved to sedition and warlike hostilities; for wariness is preeminently characteristic of the Greeks. Thus it could happen that the treasures which are St. Patrick's Cathedral 1853-1888 visible here, deposited in safety, amount to more than those which had been visible there, left [on view] under conditions unsafe on account of disorders. From very many truthful men, even from Bishop Hugues of Laon, we had heard wonderful and almost incredible reports about the superiority of Hagia Sophia and other churches' ornaments for the celebration of Mass. If this is so - or rather because we believe it to be so, by their testimony - then such inestimable and incomparable treasures should be exposed to the judgment of the many. Let every man abound in his own Sense. To me, I confess, one thing has always seemed preeminently fitting: that every costlier or costliest thing should serve, first and foremost, for the administration of the Holy Eucharist. If golden pouring vessels, golden vials, golden little mortars used to serve, by the word of God or the command of the Prophet, to collect the blood of goats or calves or the red heifer: how much more must golden vessels, precious stones, and whatever is most a ued among all created things, be laid out, with continual reverence and full devotion, for the reception of the blood of Christ! Surely neither we nor our possessions suffice for this service. If, by a new creation, our substance were re-formed from that of the holy Cherubim and Seraphim, it would still offer an insufficient and unworthy service for so great and so ineffable a victim; and yet we have so great a propitiation for our sins. The detractors also object that a saintly mind, a pure heart, a faithful intention ought to suffice for this sacred function; and we, too, explicitly and especially affirm that it is these that principally matter. [But] we profess that we must do homage also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels, and to nothing in the world in an equal degree as to the service of the Holy Sacrifice, with all inner purity and with all outward splendor. For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Savior in all things in a universal way - Him Who has not refused to provide for us in all things in a universal way and without any exception; Who has fused our nature with His into one admirable individuality; Who, setting us on His right hand, has promised us in truth to possess His kingdom; our Lord Who liveth and reigneth for ever and ever.

[From Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its Art Treasures, edited, translated and annotated by Erwin Panofsky; second edition by Gerda Panofsky-Soergel, Princeton: Princeton University Press.]

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